The New Year – Sunday 10th January

ISAIAH 43:1-7 & LUKE 3:15-17, 21-22

Please take a moment or two with me, if you will – to imagine what it was like to be the nation of Israel at the time of the prophet Isaiah. …

To the south is Egypt a major power, still striving to keep its place in the world. To the north and east, Assyria, seemingly at the height of its power – a particularly vicious nation who pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing – completely devastating conquered lands, killing many and dispersing the rest around its empire, destroying any sense of national cohesion, minimising the possibility of rebellion. But Assyria was fragile, it had expanded too quickly and was itself on the brink of being overrun by a rival empire from further east – the Babylonians.

So what was it like to be Israel, or Judah, trapped between these mighty forces, sitting slap bang in the middle of the main trade routes between the powers; placed right on the main military roads?

Can you imagine the sense of fear, of terror, at the forces ranged on each side of them? Can you feel the uncertainty of Israel’s leaders as they try to evaluate who will win? Which side should they make a treaty with? Which side can be trusted? Can any of these powers be trusted?

Can you see the sense of dread on the faces of the ordinary people as they watch army after army moving back and forward across their land? Hoping against hope that the army will have moved through the territory before it chooses to stop. For when an army stops, it eats. And where does its food come from? From the farms, the fertile valleys, the families near where it stops. And ancient armies never paid for their food, they raped and pillaged – not only the land but the people.

What was it like for Israel to be caught in the middle of forces over which it had no control? Tossed hither and thither by the events of the day? ….

It is into this kind of situation that Isaiah speaks God’s words:

10608161_770567329672659_1975669591_nDo not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

What do these words mean to Israel?

They were already feeling swamped and overcome. These words are not a promise that everything will be fine. They are rather a promise that whatever Israel suffers God will be with them. Whatever difficulties they face God will walk through those difficulties with Israel.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

What does God want to say to us today through these words? What does God want to say to us on the Sunday when the Church of England asks us to remember that Christ went through the waters of Baptism? What does God want to say to us, at the beginning of a New Year?

Adult baptism by full immersion is a graphic picture of death and resurrection. … Christ’s own baptism prefigures his death & resurrection. It points forward to the time when he passed through the waters of death & in doing so experienced the desolation of being deserted by his Father. The time when the Godhead was rent asunder for love of us. … Christ’s Baptism & his death are the greatest evidence that he has experienced the worst that life can throw at us. That as we pass through the turbulent waters of life, God will be with us. “Do not fear,” says God to each of us. “Do not fear,” says God to us as communities of Christian believers, as churches in Ashton, Tameside and the UK.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

God does not promise us exemption from the struggles of life, the difficulties that others face. Rather, God promises to be with us through the experiences of life. And it is grasping the truth of this which the Bible calls faith. It is what sustained ancient Israel. It is what can sustain each of us as we embark upon the journey of another year with all that it may bring.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

These are words that each of us needs to hear for ourselves.

We can dismiss God’s words in our Gospel reading. We can say that God meant them only for his special Son. Although I think they were meant for all of God’s children: “You are my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” They are just the words we each need to hear.

But we can dismiss them, we can disbelieve them, if we choose to, because God said them to Jesus and he was a special case, wasn’t he? And so we don’t hear that the words spoken to us as well!

We cannot, however, so easily dismiss the words of our OT passage. They were spoken to God’s servant Israel, to God’s people. They are words for us, promises to hold onto in the most difficult of times. Words for us today as stand at the start of a new year:

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

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